3 Nephi 16:15 Textual Variants

Royal Skousen
but if they will not [return >js turn 1|turn ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRST] unto me and hearken unto my voice I will suffer them—yea I will suffer my people / O house of Israel— that they shall go through among them and shall tread them down

Here in 3 Nephi 16:15, the question is whether the text refers to the people returning or turning unto the Lord. Originally, the printer’s manuscript had return and the 1830 edition had turn. In his editing for the 1837 edition, Joseph Smith emended 𝓟 to read turn, thus making the manuscript agree with the 1830 reading.

In discussions dealing with repentance, the text has references to both returning and turning unto the Lord. Excluding the case here in 3 Nephi 16:15, there are 9 instances of “return (un)to ” and 12 of “turn (un)to ”. (For some discussion whether the preposition should be unto or to, see under Mosiah 11:23.) And in most of these 21 instances involving return or turn, the verbs are virtually interchangeable, especially where there is a nearby instance of the verb repent. In the following listing of 14 cases, I mark with an asterisk each one that takes the verb return:

Note, in particular, the case in Helaman 13:11 where both return and turn are used in the same passage, thus showing their basic equivalence. Also note that in every case but one (namely, 3 Nephi 9:13), the verb repent comes first. Thus either return (the original reading in 𝓟) or turn (the 1830 reading) will work here in 3 Nephi 16:15.

The larger passage here in 3 Nephi 16:13–15 shows a contrastive pair of if- clauses; the strong parallelism between the two clauses supports the repetition of the verb return in the second if- clause:

3 Nephi 16:13—14 3 Nephi 16:15 (the reading in 𝓟)

but if the Gentiles will but if they will
repent and return unto me not return unto me
saith the Father

behold they shall be numbered among my people
O house of Israel and hearken unto my voice

I will suffer them and I will not suffer my people yea I will suffer my people

which are of the house of Israel O house of Israel

to go through among them that they shall go through among them and tread them down and shall tread them down

saith the Father

When we look at all the other pairs of explicitly contrastive if- clauses in the Book of Mormon, we consistently find that the verb (or some equivalent of the verb) is repeated. Consider 11 other passages that follow the pattern in 3 Nephi 16:13–15, namely, (1) the first if- clause is separated from the second one by the negative conjunction but, and (2) one of the if- clauses has a not. The most common case involves the repetition of a single verb. In seven cases, the first if- clause is positive while the second is negative; in one case, the first is negative and the second positive (marked below with an asterisk):

In addition, there is one case with two verbs in the first if- clause (to repent and to be baptized ), yet only the first verb, repent, is repeated in the following contrastive if- clause:

Of course, if one is unrepentant, the question of being baptized becomes moot.

In another case, no verb is explicitly stated; instead so is used both times to stand for a preceding reference to “hardening one’s heart in unbelief and being slothful”:

Finally, there is one case where the following if- clause has no verb at all nor the word so. But this is a case of ellipsis, which implies verbal identity:

These examples argue that the verb in 3 Nephi 16:15 (the contrastive second if-clause) should be the same verb as in 3 Nephi 16:13 (the first if- clause)—in other words, return in both cases. Of course, one could argue that Oliver Cowdery, the scribe in 𝓟, expected such a repetition and thus replaced an original turn in verse 15 with return.

Another factor to consider in this analysis has been the occasional tendency in the early transmission of the text to either add or delete a prefixal prepositional element for verbs. Here in 3 Nephi 16:15, we have a case where either Oliver Cowdery added re- to the verb turn or the 1830 typesetter removed the re- from return. The majority of other cases involve the loss of a prefixal element, but there are also a few cases where such an element has been added to a verb. (For each of the examples listed below, see the discussion under the respective passage.) To begin with, Oliver Cowdery twice omitted the verbal prefix in copying from 𝓞 into 𝓟, but only momentarily:

There is also evidence that Oliver may have made the latter error (replacing an original removed with moved) in 2 Nephi 20:13. Originally, I thought that in Alma 62:15 Oliver might have replaced an original overtook with took, but now it appears that the original text actually read took.

There are also two firm examples where the 1830 typesetter, John Gilbert, consciously deleted the prefixal element from a verb:

In the first case, however, he later decided to restore the ad- prefix, probably because the word administered occurred later on in the verse. But these two cases show a conscious tendency on Gilbert’s part to either add or delete verbal prefixes, when motivated to do so.

Finally, we have one instance where it appears that Oliver Cowdery added a verbal prefix:

In this instance, 𝓞 seems to have read take (based on spacing between extant fragments of 𝓞). This example could be taken as support for the possibility that Oliver changed an original turn in 3 Nephi 16:15 to return, given the occurrence of return earlier in 3 Nephi 16:13.

Don Brugger (personal communication) points out another way of resolving the difficulty here in 3 Nephi 16:13–15: namely, the 1830 use of turn in verse 15 is correct, but the earlier return in verse 13 is an error for turn. Under this proposal, the verb for this pair of contrastive if- clauses would still be identical, but now it would be turn rather than return:

Such a proposal implies that for verse 13, when 𝓞 was dictated, an original turn was mistakenly replaced by return, either by Joseph Smith as he dictated the text or by Oliver Cowdery (the probable scribe here in 𝓞) as he took down the dictation. For verse 15, on the other hand, the presumption is that 𝓞 correctly read turn, but when Oliver copied the text from 𝓞 into 𝓟, he mistakenly wrote return, probably because of the incorrect return in verse 13. In other words, this conjectural emendation has turn being replaced by return two times (during the dictation of 𝓞 for verse 13 and during the copying from 𝓞 into 𝓟 for verse 15). Although such a scenario is possible, it is considerably more complicated and less likely than having a single change of return to turn (in verse 15 by the 1830 typesetter). Another question to consider is what would have motivated the change from turn to return in verse 13. Perhaps the earlier references in 3 Nephi to returning and repenting (in 3 Nephi 9:13 and 3 Nephi 10:6) could have prompted such a change, although these two passages are quite a bit earlier in the text. Another possibility is the immediately preceding repent in 3 Nephi 16:13, with its Latinate prefix re-, could have caused “repent and turn” to be changed into “repent and return”. Even so, the chances of mixing up turn and return in verse 13 seem fairly remote.

Brugger also notes that there is a possible difference in the semantics between return and turn. One could argue that the verb return should be restricted to cases where repentant individuals are returning to their original faith rather than being converted for the first time. (On the other hand, turn could be used in either case.) So when the text here in 3 Nephi 16 refers to the Gentiles repenting and (re)turning to the Lord, the question is whether they would be returning to their original faith or being converted for the first time. Clearly, the first case is possible since this chapter explains that the Gentiles, having an incomplete form of the gospel, will eventually have the fullness of the gospel presented to them but will largely reject it because of sin (3 Nephi 16:6–10). Thus after the house of Israel receives the fullness of the gospel (3 Nephi 16:11–12), the Gentiles will get the opportunity of repenting and returning unto the Lord, otherwise they will be “trodden under foot of my people” (3 Nephi 16:13–15). So in both verses 13 and 15, either return or turn will work semantically.

Ultimately, it is difficult to determine the original reading here in 3 Nephi 16:15. It should first be noted that there are no other examples of variation between return and turn elsewhere in the history of the text. Changes involving other prefixal verbs in the early text argue that Oliver Cowdery could have added the re- prefix to turn or John Gilbert, the 1830 typesetter, could have removed it from an original return. In particular, Oliver could have made the change under the influence of the preceding return in verse 13, while Gilbert may have thought that “return and hearken” was a difficult reading, with the verb order being sequentially or logically wrong: if we return to the Lord, haven’t we already hearkened? In other words, “turn and hearken” is an easier reading, which perhaps explains why Joseph Smith decided to accept this 1830 reading when he edited the printer’s manuscript for the 1837 edition. Against the balanced evidence from transitional probabilities, usage elsewhere in the text argues that the verb should be the same in pairs of contrastive if-clauses. Thus the critical text here will restore the reading of 𝓟 in verse 15 as the original reading, especially since it involves only one change. Alternatively, both verbs in verses 13 and 15 could have originally been turn, but this emendation would involve two changes in the early transmission. Moreover, the odds of replacing an original turn with return in verse 13 seem small.

Summary: Restore the original reading of the printer’s manuscript in 3 Nephi 16:15 (“but if they will not return unto me”) since the parallel earlier phraseology in 3 Nephi 16:13 uses return (“if the Gentiles will repent and return unto me”); there seems to be little possibility that the return in verse 13 is an error for turn.

Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, Part. 5